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The Wars of the Roses and the fall of the Plantagenets

Red and white roses being picked

Part 1 – the End of an Age

The Wars of the Roses heralded the end of an age.  The hostilities decimated a great many of the leading noble families of England.  Most significantly of all, the Plantagenets, who had dominated medieval life in England for three centuries, would disappear from history.   

A key moment in history

This was a pivotal moment in English history.  In more ways than one the Plantagenets had come to epitomise Medieval England.  The third crusade, the Magna Carter, the barons’ wars, the conquest of Wales, wars with Scotland, the Hundred Years’ War, the black death, the peasants revolt: were all key chapters in the Plantagenet story.

The Tudor age that followed saw Henry VIII break with Rome and make England a Protestant country.  One cannot but wonder what might have happened if the Plantagenets had survived.  The impact of England possibly remaining Catholic would clearly have been enormous.

A Catholic Plantagenet C16th England would probably have been a lot closer to Spain.   Thus, there would have been no Armada and less reason to strengthen England’s navy.  No Tudors would have meant no James I and no unification with Scotland.  No Stuarts would have meant no Charles I and perhaps no English Civil War. The whole course of English history would have been radically different.

A tale of violence, vengeance, intrigue, and betrayal

The wars are a tale of truly epic proportions involving vicious feuds, Machiavellian intrigues, cynical betrayals, callous murders, and bloody vengeance. A time that would see cousin fight cousin, brother betray brother and an entire extended family destroy itself from within. 

All the key political players at the start of the conflict would be dead and laid to rest long before it ended.  The last act of the wars would be played out by Richard III, who was under three years old when the wars started, and Henry VII, who had not even been born then.

It was a struggle for power that has served as an inspiration not only for Shakespeare but for many writers since.  Perhaps most recently and most notability it gave George RR Martin inspiration for his Game of Thrones saga. 

And larger-than-life characters populated the war – the Kingmaker, the Butcher, the She Wolf, Black William, the Crookback and even the Universal Spider. 

A dynasty divided

But what caused this cataclysmic conflict?

The answer to that question is not a simple one but at the heart of the wars lay a dynastic dispute between two branches of the same family.  This dispute, in and of itself, may not fully explain why war broke out in 1455 and not earlier (or later) but it was undeniably a key factor.  And, at the end of the day, eventually became the central issue over which the wars were fought.

The challenge England faced in 1455 was that it had become a country bitterly divided between two factions. 

The branch of the Plantagenet family descended from John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster was the ruling faction.  The reigning monarch at the start of the wars was Henry VI, John of Gaunt’s great grandson.

The other faction, who argued they had a stronger claim to the throne, were descended from Edmund of Langley, the Duke of York (also a Plantagenet).  In 1455, Edmund’s grandson Richard was the current Duke.

The partisan behaviour of many powerful noble families made the conflict worse (and more complicated).  Some would ally themselves to one faction or the other for purely selfish reasons.  And more than one would change sides as and when it suited their own personal interests.

The real tragedy was that the Houses of York and Lancaster were cousins – all descents of the same man. For John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley were brothers; both sons of King Edward III.

Why roses?

As it happens, these wars were not referred to as the ‘Wars of the Roses’ until some considerable time after the conflict ended.   So where did the name come from?

Whilst both houses used roses as emblems, they also used many other symbols.  It was only later (in Tudor times) that two rival houses became more specifically associated with the roses.  The white rose was the symbol of the House of York and red for Lancaster. Henry VII created the Tudor rose after his victory at Bosworth to symbolise the union of the two families that his new regime represented.  It is thanks to Henry that the red and white roses have such a prominent place in history. 

the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster
The White Rose of York & the Red of Lancaster

However, at the time of Henry’s reign, no one was directly associating the civil wars of the past few decades with the roses.

A confrontation in the garden

We have to wait until 1583, before we see the phrase ‘the striving of the two roses’ appear in a book by Sir Robert Smith.  This is the first time the roses were associated with the conflict as far as we know.  However, not long after this, William Shakespeare immortalised forever the image of the striving roses.

The image of the warring roses features in Shakespeare’s Henry VI part 1, act 2, scene 4, first performed in 1592.  In this scene, Richard of York and the Lancastrian Duke of Somerset confront each other in the Temple gardens in London. 

Richard addresses those present and invites them to support his cause:

“Let him that is a true-born gentleman

And stands upon the honor of his birth,

If he suppose that I have pleaded truth,

From off this brier pluck a white rose with me”

Somerset responds:

“Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer,

But dare maintain the party of the truth,

Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me.”

And so, Shakespeare would have us believe, the two factions were ever after identified.  Of course, it didn’t happen quite like that but thanks to the power of Shakespeare’s quill the image has stuck in people’s minds.

The Quarrelling Roses

In fact, during Shakespeare’s day, the wars appear to have been referred to simply as ‘civil wars’ rather than the ‘wars of the roses’.  For example, Samuel Daniel, the English playwright, poet, and historian wrote a work entitled ‘The First Four Books of the Civil Wars Between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York’  in 1595.  Of course, at this time, there was no ‘English Civil War’ with which these wars might be confused.

The roses became even more directly associated with the wars when Sir John Oglander referred to the conflict as ‘The Quarrel of the Warring Roses’ in 1646. But the first person to explicitly apply the label ‘War of the Roses’, appears to have been the historian David Hume in 1761.  This name for the conflict became widely accepted after it was popularised in the nineteenth century by Sir Walter Scott. 

Later, the fact that the conflict divided into three distinct phases (1455-1464, 1469-71 and 1483-1487) led people to refer to them as ‘wars’ rather than a single ‘war’. So, in fact, the term ‘War of the Roses’ (rather than ‘wars’) is the older term.

Some modern writers (mostly of historical fiction) claim that a more authentic name for these wars is the ‘Cousins’ Wars’ (so named because they were fought between cousins).  However, I have not been able to find a single primary source to show this term was ever used any earlier than the C20th.  If anyone knows of one, please let me know!  Until then, however, we have to regard the idea that the term ‘Cousins’ Wars’ was a more contemporary and authentic term as apocryphal.

A house divided

Although the wars broke out in 1455, the division of the Plantagenets into two rival houses happened a very long time before. 

In 1400, the Lancastrian Henry Bolingbroke had acquired the throne following the violent overthrow of the reigning Plantagenet monarch, Richard II.  Whilst Richard had been a very unpopular King, many saw his removal as a usurpation.  Furthermore, many had felt that, if the Richard was not King, the throne should pass to his heir presumptive (Richard of York’s ancestor) rather than Bolingbroke (Henry VI’s grandfather).

Bolingbroke’s usurpation would cast a destabilising shadow over the Lancastrian regime he founded.  It could be easily ignored during the reign of a strong, popular, monarch like Henry V.  However, when things started to go wrong, it would rear its ugly head to raise uncomfortable questions about the regime’s legitimacy.

Origins of the conflict

If we are to understand the origins of the conflict, we first need to understand why Bolingbroke acted as he did in 1400.  Indeed, to understand that, we need to look further back in time at the reign of Richard II – how and why did he become so unpopular?

In truth, we need to look a little farther back even than Richard II.  For it is during the reign of Richard’s predecessor, the great Edward III, that our story really begins.  Edward III was a King so celebrated and respected, that his legacy would continue to have a huge impact on England many long decades after his death.  

Edward III was not just the father of both the Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties; he was also the man whose vision and ambition would come to dominate policy in late Medieval England.  In short, he set the standard by which all other late Medieval English monarchs would be judged.

I’ve chosen to start our story in 1355, exactly a century before the wars began and two centuries after the Plantagenet dynasty came to power.

In tracing the story of the Wars of the Roses and its origins, I will inevitably be telling another story.  The story of the fall of the Plantagenets.  A story of how a dynasty that had held power for two centuries and whose future, in 1355, seemed to promise even greater glories, could have disappeared into oblivion by 1487.

The like of King Arthur

Portrait of Edward III
Edward III

In 1355, King Edward III had been King for three decades.  Nearly twenty years before, a dispute with the King of France over possession of the Duchy of Aquitaine and Ponthieu had led Edward to take the extraordinary step of laying claim to the French throne.  It marked the beginning of the Hundred Years’ war.  His triumph at Crecy in 1346 had made him a virtual legend in his own lifetime.  By 1355 he enjoyed incredible popularity with his subjects and was widely respected by the nobility of Europe.  One French Chronicler wrote of Edward:

“His like had not been seen since the days of King Arthur.” 

Jean Froissart’s Chronicle

Despite such accolades, Edward’s reign had been very far from a bed of roses for the English.  Edward may have given England glory in war, but his realm also had to endure the devastation brought by the Black Death. Even Edward’s own family had not escaped unscathed (he lost a daughter).  However, by 1355, England was recovering well enough for Edward’s thoughts to return to dreams of glory in France. 

But this time it was his eldest son, the Black Prince (also an Edward), who played a key role in leading the English forces.  Prince Edward, in his mid-twenties, had truly come of age and, in the ensuing continental campaign, would prove himself every bit as formidable as his father.

Strong Foundations

The Plantagenet dynasty’s future seemed very secure at this time.  Prince Edward had four brothers so, even if he were to die on campaign, Edward III’s house would surely endure.

Next in line to the throne, after Edward, was Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence.  In 1355 Lionel, was 17 years old and already married with a newly born daughter of his own.  Edward III’s third son was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and the fourth was Edmund of Langley, Duke of York.  And, if four sons were not enough to secure the future, the King had just gained a fifth, new-born in January 1355, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester.

The Plantagenets had never seemed stronger.  Their dynasty had ruled the Kingdom of England for just over two centuries.  The current Plantagenet King was accounted the greatest English King since the mythical King Arthur.  And, just as importantly, the future looked to be in good hands.  The Plantagenet heir apparent promised to be another great warrior-King in his father’s mould.  To all of Europe it must have seemed as though the dynasty would go on forever. 

But it was not to be. 

Fortunes fade

medieval illustration of the Batttle of Poitiers 1356
The Battle of Poitiers, 1356

At first things continued to go well.  The Black Prince enjoyed some significant successes in the war with France in the 1350s.  His victory at Poitiers in 1356 was every bit as impressive as many of this father’s achievements and would ensure English dominance in France for several years to come.  For a time, it looked as though Edward III’s dream of becoming King of France might come true.

However, after 1360, the autumn years of the reign of the great Edward III failed to live up to the promise of past glories. 

The military campaigns in France during the 1360s were largely unsuccessful.  The English found themselves ever more on the back foot as the French gradually recovered the territory they’d lost. 

The aging King was increasingly unable to play an active role in government as he became older and frailer. The Black Prince’s own health would start to suffer after 1367 and so it was his brother, John of Gaunt, who would become increasingly influential.  John of Gaunt was probably the richest man in England by this time.  By 1374, due to the deteriorating health of his father and brother, Gaunt was effectively running the government.


By the mid-1370s, not only had the situation deteriorated in France but the Royal Council itself had become the subject of controversy. Two of Edward’s leading councillors became heavily embroiled in corruption scandals.  By 1376 things came to a head and the so-called ‘Good’ Parliament of that year made a serious effort to rid the council of its corrupt members. 

Two members of the Privy Council were particularly despised. One, Sir Richard Lyons, was a wealthy London merchant who was accused to abusing his position to establish a monopoly on the London wine trade.  He was also accused of a variety of other frauds and extortions.  The other was William Latimer, the King’s Chamberlain.  Latimer was accused of selling the castle of Saint-Sauveur to the French, taking bribes, and retaining fines that he had collected on behalf of the king.

Both Lyons and Latimer were impeached by parliament.  However, Lyons being Lyons, he attempted to bribe his way out of it by sending the Black Prince a £1,000 ‘gift’ hidden in a barrel of sturgeon.  The Black Prince wasn’t buying it however, and had Lyons arrested and imprisoned.

The Death of Princes

The Black Prince had by this time become particularly popular with the commons for his victories in France and his role in supporting their impeachment of Lyons and Latimer.  However, all was far from well with the prince.

The Black Prince had never fully recovered for a sickness that had first incapacitated him in 1367.  In the years that followed he would fluctuate between periods of partial recovery and debilitating relapse.  He also had to endure the tragedy of the death of his eldest son (another Edward) who died in 1371 at the age of 5.  Finally, on 8th June 1376 his health took a turn for the worse for the last time.  The Black Prince was dead, at just 43, leaving a single young son and heir – Richard.

The Power Behind the Throne

Portrait of John of Gaunt
John of Gaunt

A new parliament was called at the start of 1377.  It was to be the last parliament of Edward III’s reign.  By this time Edward himself was quite frail, having been ill for much of the latter part of 1376.  Although early 1377 saw a partial recovery, he remained unable to play a particularly active role in public life.

As parliament convened in January 1377, it would be John of Gaunt, the King’s eldest surviving son, who would deputise on his father’s behalf.  Thanks to a few defections and the absence of key people from the parliament, Gaunt was able to undo much of the work of the Good Parliament.  Lyons and Latimer’s impeachments were overturned and suddenly they were back in favour.  The parliament also voted through a poll tax; a move that would eventually prove very unpopular. This parliament has become known as the ‘Bad Parliament’ as a result (although this label is not a contemporary one).

John of Gaunt achieved much of this due to his political influence.  He was now clearly in command of the government.  The extent to which he was simply enacting the will of his father rather than promoting his own agenda is impossible to say for certain. What was clear, however, was that Gaunt became incredibly unpopular.  Many people came to see Gaunt as a malign power behind the throne and the chief architect of the Bad Parliament.

As 1377 wore on the health of the elderly King Edward deteriorated further and he was dead by June of that year.  As he was dying, the aging King’s thoughts turned to the issue of succession and to drawing up a will. 

The King’s will

As a result of his untimely death, the Black Prince would not inherit the throne as many had hoped.  Instead, it passed to the young Richard Plantagenet, just 10 years old, the Black Prince’s only surviving son.  A boy king was always a dangerous prospect in the Middle Ages; uncertain times lay ahead.

There was some question, however, as to who would succeed Richard in the event of boy’s death.  As Richard was still so young, Edward felt the need to make provision for this eventuality himself.

Family tree of the house of Plantagenet in 1377

Although never formally laid down in law, the general view was that male-preference primogeniture would determine the royal succession. 

Following this custom, Edward III’s sons and their lines of descent would all take priority over his daughters.  And, more importantly, the descendants of an elder brother (whether male or female) would take precedence over the descendants of a younger brother.

Following male-preference primogeniture, Richard was the first in line to the throne once the Black Prince died.  Second in line would have been Lionel of Antwerp, Richard’s uncle, and Edward III’s second oldest son after the Black Prince.  However, by 1377 Lionel was also dead.  Lionel’s only heir was his adult daughter, Phillipa – but this presented a dilemma.  Kings had ruled England ever since the foundation of the Plantagenet dynasty.  The prospect of a Queen, ruling in her own name, was uncharted territory.

The prospect of a Queen

The only real precedent for a woman inheriting the throne was Queen Matilda from more than two centuries before.  Her father, Henry I, died leaving no surviving legitimate male heir, so Matilda had claimed the throne as Henry’s eldest daughter.  A long and bloody civil war contested the claim.  Matilda’s faction eventually gained the upper hand, allowing her son, Henry II to become the first Plantagenet King of England.  Matilda never ruled England as the undisputed Queen in her own right, however.  So, as things stood in 1377, there was no definitive precedent for a female monarch since the foundation of the Kingdom of England in 927 CE.

Nevertheless, based on the admittedly unsettling example of Matilda, some may have expected that Phillipa or her son, Roger Mortimer, might be next in line to the throne after Richard. 

But Edward, as it turned out, was not happy with this arrangement.

The Entailment of Edward III

The old man decided to exclude the female line of his family from inheriting the throne in an entailment to his will.

The entailment involved adopting something akin to the Salic Laws as favoured in France.  This meant that all female descendants of Edward III (most specifically Phillipa) were excluded from the succession.   This also meant Roger Mortimer could never become King, since his claim to the throne depended on inheriting the right of succession from his mother. 

So, according to the entail, succession passed over the Mortimer family entirely.  Instead, it designated John of Gaunt, Edward III’s eldest surviving son, as first in line in the event of Richard’s death.

As an added twist, the finer details of Edward III’s entailment were not widely publicised at the time.  Thus, only a limited number of people (possibly only the Plantagenet family and trusted court officials) were aware of it.  Many ordinary people may well have assumed that, if something happened to Richard II, the Mortimer family would inherit the throne.

A fateful decision

Why did Edward come to this decision? 

Perhaps he worried that if something happened to the young Richard, it would be unwise for a woman to inherit the throne.  The last time it had happened, the result was a bloody civil war. 

Perhaps John of Gaunt himself had played a role in influencing Edward to add the entail.  John certainly had a reputation as a ruthless political operator by 1377 and the decision placed him one step closer to power. 

By the time of his father’s death many in England regarded Gaunt with considerable suspicion.  For some, he was seen as a Tywin Lannister figure; a wealthy and powerful magnate, wielding power for his own purposes from behind the throne.  It is also true that it was John who had advocated the change to adopt Salic Laws in the parliament of 1376. However, it is not possible to tell whether he did this of his own initiative or at his father’s request. 

However, whilst such machinations seem plausible given what we now know of subsequent events, this does rather rely upon the benefit of hindsight. 

In 1377, for all anyone knew, Richard could well have gone on to rule England for several decades and have several sons of his own.  The potential advantage for John of Gaunt in pressing for the entail at the time would seem limited.

But there may be a more straightforward explanation for the entailment, and one that makes perfect sense in the context of Edward III’s career. 

The French consideration

Perhaps Edward III was not just thinking about succession to the English throne when he made this entail. Perhaps he was mainly thinking (as he ever had done) about France. 

In France, royal succession was based on Salic Law.  That meant that the French would certainly never accept Phillipa as queen.  For this reason, they would also reject Roger Mortimer.   Should Edward III’s dream of victory in France ever become a reality, he had to consider the French throne as well as the English.

Perhaps it was with this in mind that Edward brought the succession rules into line with those of France.  That way it would avoid a future situation where, potentially, Roger Mortimer might become the legitimate King of England whilst John of Gaunt (or his son Henry) might simultaneously become the legitimate King of France. 

One might therefore view Edward III’s entail as an attempt to ensure that such a confusing (and potentially dangerous) division of his legacy could not possibly arise.

What if?

What if Edward III’s entail had not excluded the female line? 

Of course, even as Edward had set quill to paper to write his entail, there was always the possibility that Richard II might later name an alternative heir to John of Gaunt or his son.  However, as things stood in 1377, John of Gaunt was officially the first in line to the throne should Richard die.

Perhaps the most significant effect of Edward’s entail would be the expectations that it undoubtedly fostered in the mind of John’s son, Henry Bolingbroke.  Henry would now grow to manhood believing that he had a stronger claim to the throne than Roger Mortimer.

What if the Black Prince had lived longer? 

Who knows what might have happened if the Black Prince had lived long enough to rule in his own right? What if he’d been able to reign long enough to guide the young Prince Richard through his adolescence?  Would it have made Richard a more effective and wiser King?

And then we come to perhaps the biggest ‘what if’ of all.  What if the ambitious Edward III had not started the Hundred Years’ War?  A war that would prove a constant drain on English resources.  A war which, although it offered the opportunity for glory, also carried the risk of delivering a disastrous defeat. 

In 1377 these probably seemed like minor concerns (if anyone even worried about them at all).  As it turned out, they would prove to be the first hairline cracks in the foundations of House Plantagenet. 

Nevertheless, as King Edward was laid to rest and the ten-year-old Richard II was crowned King, House Plantagenet appeared to be a united and seemingly invulnerable dynasty.

Next time…

In next month’s article in this series, I will take a close look at the reign of Richard II and the chain of events that would lead to the division of the Plantagenets into two rival houses – Lancaster and York.

Read the next article in this series here

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References & Further Reading

Henry VI, Part 1.  William Shakespeare

Lancaster And York: The Wars of the Roses. Alison Weir. Vintage, 2009.

The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. Oneworld Publications. 2021.

The Reign of Edward III, W.M. Ormrod. The History Press. 2000

The will of Edward III – Ian Mortimer, Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies, (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010)

Wikipedia – Edward III


Battle of Poitiers – Illumination by Loyset Liédet

Confrontation in the Temple Gardens – Henry Arthur Payne

Plantagenet Family Tree – Paul Watts

Portrait of Edward III – unknown artist (currently hanging in the National Gallery)

Portrait of John of Gaunt – by Lucas Cornelisz de Kock, painted in 1593.  It was probably modelled on Gaunt’s now lost tomb effigy in Old St Paul’s Cathedral.

Red and White Rose Design – Sodacan from Wiki Commons

1 thought on “The Wars of the Roses and the fall of the Plantagenets”

  1. Julian Rawle

    Wonderful explanation of a period of British history that I somehow missed out on at school. This was particularly inconvenient as I grew up in Headingley and attended the Roses match every year! Looking forward to the next instalment and eventually filling this gap iny knowledge.

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